Trump Launched A Trade War Against China. Don't Look To Biden To Reverse It

Nov 18, 2020
Originally published on November 18, 2020 6:13 pm

President Trump's slash-and-burn rhetoric against China may have brought few lasting economic benefits so far, but it has succeeded in one fundamental way: No administration can now afford to play nice with the United States' biggest rival.

Trump made hostility toward China a centerpiece of his "America First" trade agenda, launching bitter attacks against Beijing's policies and setting off a trade war by slapping tariffs on two-thirds of Chinese imports.

All those attacks have changed the relationship between the two economic superpowers, according to experts. And although President-elect Joe Biden will likely set a more polite tone, he can ill afford to ease off on China as American attitudes toward trade and big global deals have soured in recent years.

Meanwhile, skepticism toward China abounds in both parties, especially among the progressives who helped elect Biden.

"I think the continued inflammatory rhetoric that President Trump has used toward China has basically made it impossible for any administration to immediately come in and change course," says Chad Bown, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

It's a marked change for an incoming president who voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement, despite later expressing misgivings about it. He also once voted to set the path for China to enter the World Trade Organization, eventually helping fuel the Asian country's incredible rise as a manufacturing superpower.

But Trump, experts note, has successfully shifted the debate on China by repeatedly accusing Beijing of predatory policies that gutted American industries, even if few companies have relocated back to the United States.

Meanwhile, years of job losses and factory closures have hardened public views about trade, especially in key electoral states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, according to Arthur Dong, a professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business.

"Biden, I think, is well aware of that," says Dong.

The hostility toward China is shared by unions and left-wing groups that helped elect Biden and see previous Democratic support for trade agreements such as NAFTA as a betrayal.

"I don't think the 1990s-style Democratic Party is fit for today's electorate or today's economy, and I hope that Joe Biden appoints personnel around him who understand that," says Waleed Shahid, spokesman for Justice Democrats, a progressive group tied to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and then Vice President Joe Biden attend an arrival ceremony in Andrews Air Force Base, Md., in 2015. Biden is under pressure from both the left and the right to continue taking a hard line on trade with China.
Carolyn Kaster / AP

That pressure on the left – and the right – means Biden is unlikely to reverse Trump's tariffs with the stroke of a pen, leaving him with few good options to pressure China.

And Biden could also be constrained by changes to global sentiment toward the United States under the Trump administration.

During the campaign, Biden criticized what he sees as Trump's go-it-alone approach to China and said that the U.S. needs to ally itself with Asia and Europe to force Beijing to play by the rules on trade.

"If we don't set the rules, we in fact are going to find ourselves with China setting the rules, and that's why we need to organize the world to stop China to stop the corrupt practices that are under way," he said in a 2019 Democratic debate.

That may be easier said than done. Joining with allies to contain Beijing was the impetus for the Obama administration's Trans-Pacific Partnership, a gargantuan trade deal among 12 Pacific-Rim nations that excluded China.

But the TPP was scrapped by Trump as soon as he took office, and Biden has said he won't support it without significant improvements in labor and environmental safeguards.

Meanwhile, the world has moved on without the United States. Over the weekend, China and 14 other countries signed a trade pact of their own, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

Biden's effort to lead other countries in containing China faces another barrier as well.

Trump clashed over trade not just with China but also with friendly countries such as Canada and Mexico, angering key allies and damaging U.S. leadership abroad, says Wendy Cutler, former acting U.S. deputy trade representative.

"There's a lot of mistrust among our allies and partners with the United States, specifically with respect to trade," Cutler says. "And, frankly, countries are increasingly fed up with us."

And then, there's the biggest hurdle of all: Biden's top priority will be bringing the U.S. economy back from the pandemic's economic downturn, pushing other issues to the side, according to Cutler.

"Trade is not going to be a front-and-center issue for this administration as it was for the Trump administration," she said. "There are a lot of domestic issues that need urgent attention."

Still, there is one way Biden is widely expected to change the U.S. relationship with China. After nearly four years of Trump's bitter attacks against China, including over the pandemic, most experts expect at least the tone will change.

"Trump's trade policy has been defined by protectionism and cronyism and mean-spiritedness," says Dan Ikenson of the pro-trade Cato Institute. "I think President Biden's trade policy will be more polite."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

President-elect Biden says he wants to change the bitter relationship between the United States and China, the world's two economic superpowers. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports the difference between Biden's approach and Trump's approach to trade with China may be more about style than substance.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Before Trump came along, no president had ever talked about China the way he did. China, he says, has gutted American industries and stolen hundreds of thousands of good factory jobs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We can't continue to allow China to rape our country, and that's what they're doing. It's the greatest theft in the history of the world.

ZARROLI: And Trump followed up the tough talk with lots of tariffs, which are a tax on Chinese imports. Chad Bown of the Peterson Institute for International Economics says these tariffs have made all kinds of Chinese-made products, from shoes to auto parts, more expensive for Americans. And they've done little to bring back factory jobs. But he says they've had an undeniable impact; the U.S.-China relationship is as acrimonious as it's been in decades.

CHAD BOWN: I think the continued inflammatory rhetoric that President Trump has used toward China has basically made it impossible for any administration to come in and immediately change course.

ZARROLI: Now that course will be set by President-elect Joe Biden. Throughout his campaign, Biden frequently attacked Trump for his go-it-alone approach to China. Only by banding together with allies in Europe and Asia, he says, can the United States really force Beijing to change.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: If we don't set the rules, we, in fact, are going to find ourselves with China setting the rules. And that's why you need to organize the world to take on China to stop the corrupt practices that are underway.

ZARROLI: But Biden has made clear he's no friend of China either. As a senator, Biden voted to allow China into the World Trade Organization in 2003, which helped fuel China's incredible rise as a manufacturing superpower. But America's mood has changed enormously since then. Trump has been able to capitalize on a deep skepticism about China in both parties, says Georgetown University's Arthur Dong.

ARTHUR DONG: This is a very real concern, you know, as a result of job loss and plant closure, particularly in those hard-hit Midwestern states. Biden, I think, is very well aware of that.

ZARROLI: While Biden can reverse Trump's tariffs with the stroke of a pen, Dong says he's unlikely to do so, at least right away. Dong does believe there will be a change in tone. Trump populated his administration with harsh China critics, such as trade adviser Peter Navarro, author of incendiary books such as "Death By China." And Dong says that angered and alienated Beijing.

DONG: So I think that'll be a refreshing change in terms of at least getting both sides to the bargaining table.

ZARROLI: But once at the bargaining table, the two sides will have some serious disagreements over access to China's markets and its theft of intellectual property. So Dan Ikenson of the pro-trade Cato Institute says at the end of the day, don't expect Biden to chart a much different course on China than his predecessor did.

DAN IKENSON: Trump's trade policy has been defined by protectionism and cronyism and mean-spiritedness. I think President Biden's trade policy will be more polite.

ZARROLI: Trump's rhetoric may have been the equivalent of a diplomatic wrecking ball, but he also highlighted and brought into the open real differences between the two countries that aren't going away anytime soon.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRACE JONES' "PRIVATE LIFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.